Reviews, Darned Reviews, and Statistics

A friend recently pointed me toward an article entitled, “Users who post ‘fake’ Amazon reviews could end up in court.” I’ve known for a long time that some authors do pay to get positive reviews for their books posted. In fact, some authors stoop to paying for negative reviews of competing works as well. Even though the actual technique used for cheating on reviews has changed, falsifying reviews is an age old problem. As the Romans might have said, caveat lector (let the reader beware). If there is a way to cheat at something, someone will most certainly find it and use it to gain a competitive advantage. Amazon and other online stores are quite probably fighting a losing battle, much as RIAA has in trying to get people to actually purchase their music (see Odd Fallout of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) for a discussion of the ramifications of IP theft). The point is that some of those reviews you’ve been reading are written by people who are paid to provide either a glowing review of the owner’s product or lambaste a competitor’s product.

Of course, it’s important to understand the reasoning behind the publication of false reviews. The obvious reason is to gain endorsements that will likely result in better sales. However, that reason is actually too simple. At the bottom of everything is the use of statistics for all sorts of purposes today, including the ordering of items on sales sites. In many cases, the art of selling comes down to being the first seller on the list and having a price low enough that it’s not worth looking at the competitors. Consequently, sales often hinge on getting good statistics, rather than producing a good product. False reviews help achieve that goal.

I’ve spent a good deal of time emphasizing the true role of reviews in making a purchase. A review, any review you read, even mine, is someone’s opinion. When someone’s opinion tends to match your own, then reading the review could help you make a good buying decision. Likewise, if you know that someone’s opinion tends to run counter to your own, then a product they didn’t like may be just what you want. Reviews are useful decision making tools when viewed in the proper light. It’s important not to let a review blind you to what the reviewer is saying or to the benefits and costs of obtaining particular products.

Ferreting out false reviews can be hard, but it’s possible to weed out many of them. Reviews that seem too good or too dire to be true, probably are fakes. Few products get everything right. Likewise, even fewer products get everything wrong. Someone produces a product in the hope of making sales, so creating one that is so horrid as to be completely useless is rare (it does happen though and there are legal measures in place to deal with these incidences).

Looking for details in the review, as well as information that is likely false is also important. Some people will write a review without ever having actually used the product. You can’t review a product that you haven’t tried. When you read a review here, you can be sure that I’ve tried out every feature (unless otherwise noted). Of course, I’m also not running a test lab, so my opinion is based on my product usage—you might use the product in a different manner or in a different environment (always read the review thoroughly).

As you look for potential products to buy online, remember to take those reviews with a grain of salt. Look for reviews that are obviously false and ignore them. Make up your own mind based on experiences you’ve had with the vendor in the past or with similar products. Reviews don’t reduce your need to remain diligent in making smart purchases. Remember those Romans of old, caveat lector!

 

July 4th, a Day to Remember

I know that Friday has become a day to get you updated on all things chicken and rabbit related. Sometimes the other animals actually make it in to a post too. However, this Friday is different. It marks the start of the 4th of July holiday here in the US. Of course, it’s my sincere wish that you do something happy with family and friends during the holiday. After all, that’s what freedom is all about—being able to express yourself in a manner that makes you and everyone around you happy. A lot of good people have lost their lives over the years to ensure that you remain free. (As part of my celebration, I plan to take Monday, the 6th of July, off, so there won’t be a blog post on that day.)

It’s also important to remember what this holiday is all about. The Declaration of Independence in 1776 wasn’t the start of anything as many people think. It also wasn’t the end of anything. If you read history, you find that it really was more the middle of something. The founding fathers had been meeting long before the declaration was made and we wouldn’t actually gain our freedom until the 21st of June, 1788. That’s when New Hampshire ratified the constitution, making us a country. The British pulled out on the 25th of November, 1783, but really, we still weren’t a nation just because the British had decided to leave.

Some people put the start of the revolution all the way in 1754 during the French and Indian war, but the big doings that led people to get fed up started with the Sugar Act signed on the 5th of April, 1764. So, when you think about the July 4th, you really must remember it was a milestone somewhere in the middle of something much larger—something that lasted at least 24 years and possibly longer than that.

Our freedom wasn’t easily won and it cost far more than most people realize in terms of resources and lives lost. Freedom also isn’t something that you just keep because someone gave it to you. We continue, as a nation, to earn the freedom that our forefathers worked so hard to obtain. That freedom could easily be lost without the required diligence. As you celebrate today, think about your responsibility toward your country. Rather than complain about the condition of things, work toward keeping, maintaining, and regaining the freedoms our forefathers felt we should have.

 

What Net Neutrality Means to You

I’ve written about Net Neutrality before in the Understanding the Effects of Net Neutrality on Web Programmers post. The post described how Net Neutrality affects developers in particular and made a passing reference to its effect on other users as well. The issues haven’t really changed. Enforcing Net Neutrality could mean free and equal access to the Internet by everyone who needs to use it, but nothing I’ve seen so far really defines what the government means by free or equal. I have concerns that some high priority needs, such as medical or real time communications, will suffer under Net Neutrality. However, the longer I think about the issue, the more I come to realize that some form of Net Neutrality is essential to the health of the Internet as we know it now. In addition, most medical posts I’ve read favor Net Neutrality as being essentially good for patient access to healthcare needs.

A number of things have happened since that post. The most notable is that Net Neutrality has become an issue of Democrats versus Republicans, rather than an honest effort to provide the sort of service that everyone wants. As I predicted, the whole matter ended up in the courts where an appeals court has decided to allow the FCC to implement the Net Neutrality rules. To counteract the court decision, House Republicans have added riders to a must pass bill to fund the government that affects the FCC’s ability to enforce Net Neutrality rules. Apparently, the cable companies have called in the favors they provided politicians in the form of campaign contributions. The Republicans are taking this action despite evidence that most people support Net Neutrality regardless of political identity.

The whole Net Neutrality issue has taken a new direction—one that is becoming all too familiar to Americans. One side, the Democrats in this case, choose to champion an issue and the other side, the Republicans in this case, decide against it. Our legislators seem determined to waste time and energy fighting with each other, rather than accomplish anything resembling real work. In the middle of it all are companies offering money—paying legislators to do their bidding. In this case, the people are on the losing side of the equation. Everything I’ve read tells me that this is a situation where the government really doesn’t care what the people want—it’s all about the money.

Of course, there is a group of people who are caught in the middle of all this—application developers. Actually, anyone responsible for ensuring content moves on the Internet is caught in this current decision to do anything but act responsibly on the part of the government. It isn’t possible to create applications that perform well when you don’t know how the communications used to transfer the data will work. Until the government gets its act together, developers and other IT professionals will simply have to take their best guess as to how to make applications perform well and that hurts everyone. Let me know your thoughts about Net Neutrality and the developer at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Considering the Effects of Automation

After recently watching Disney’s new movie, Tomorrowland, I started thinking about the world that really could come about tomorrow. Of course, it will have many of the same problems we have today, but I’m sure it will also have a few new problems and hopefully, some of the old problems will see some sort of resolution. My recent forays into advanced math have given me a new perspective of just what it will take to create tomorrow. In writing both Python for Data Science for Dummies and MATLAB for Dummies I’ve come to a greater appreciation of the role that both math and science will play in creating this new world—not that there was any lack of appreciation before I wrote the books, but the vision now is clearer.

The fact of the matter is that people will require more education. Even plumbers and electricians will need to know more in order to deal with new technologies coming on the scene (think about performing tasks such as installing solar panels). It will come to a point where advanced schooling after high school (whether trade or technical) is going to become a necessity. Yes, people can still get jobs today without a college education, but those days are coming to an end with the advances in robotics I keep reading about. For example, a recent New York Times article, As Robots Grow Smarter, American Workers Struggle to Keep Up, says quite a lot about the future of low paying jobs—they simply won’t exist. Articles such as the one found in MIT Technology Review, Robots That Learn Through Repetition, Not Programming, tell the story of why this is the case. In the future, robots will learn to perform new tasks as needed. The tone of some of these articles is a bit negative because we’re viewing the future through today’s eyes.

What I see in the future are opportunities for people to create, but in a safer environment than in the past. Just as it’s difficult to see the past as it actually was (the way the people viewed things at that time), trying to view the future, even if you have some inkling of what that future might contain, is difficult. For example, imagine having to saddle your horse before you can go anywhere—people today are used to simply climbing into the car and turning the key. However, if you lived in the early 1900s, a car was a really loud, obnoxious device that would spell the ruination of society—horses were far more practical and comfortable (interestingly enough, about 40 percent of those cars were steam powered). There is a difference in viewpoint that is hard to overcome (or even imagine for that matter). A ComputerWorld article, How enterprises can use artificial intelligence, describes how technology in the movies doesn’t quite match reality. In fact, you might find some of the ways in which advanced technologies and automation are used somewhat boring. Fraud detection hardly ranks as a highly exciting way to use technology, but it reflects the practical nature of how technology sees use today.

When I see kids today doing absolutely everything on a smartphone, I come to realize that they already live in a world far different from the one I knew as a child. There is no going back. Children today have different problems than I had simply because the technology is different. If I encountered a problem, I first had to find a phone to call someone for help—children today carry their phone with them (almost as another body part). Then again, children when I grew up didn’t have the problems with obesity that children do today.

A lot of the readers I talk with every day express various feelings about automation and all it entails—some are scared, others elated. The fact is that the future has always been different. Change is a part of the human condition. We’ll live through the changes that automation will create too. Let me know your thoughts on the changes that automation will bring at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Chips from Wood, Really?

Sometimes I encounter an article that takes me completely by surprise. I’ve always had a strong interest in computer hardware articles because I started out as a hardware guy (many years ago). Of course, that interest has become stronger since writing Build Your Own PC on a Budget. However, even with the amount of reading I do, I didn’t expect the ComputerWorld article I read last week, Computer chips made of wood promise greener electronics.

Anyone who has read blog posts such as, More People Noticing that Green Technology Really Isn’t know that I have a real problem with technology that only makes you think it helps the environment when it actually creates more pollution. Unlike many green technology failures, making chips using a wood substrate could potentially fulfill it’s promise. No, it won’t eliminate pollution, but it will create less of it. The most important thing to understand about the ComputerWorld article is that chips made of this material will decompose over time and that they use 99.9 percent less semiconductor material. I find the whole idea really amazing.

According to the article, the new chips are a win for vendors as well because they cost less to manufacture. So, not only do you get a greener chip, but one that costs less as well. This is the sort of winning scenario that I’d love to see happen more often. The last time I had such good news to report was with my CFLs for Free post. However, the problem now is to get enough people to actually use this material to create chips to make it worthwhile. If only a few vendors decide to make chips from wood, then the effort is lost—we won’t see an actual reduction in pollution as the result of this innovation.

All this leads me to wonder what sorts of other materials could eventually make an appearance as chip material. I’d love to eventually build a PC that uses all biodegradable components. You could throw it away and be sure that nature would eventually turn it back into source material for new items. What a concept! Let me know your thoughts about biodegradable chips at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Thinking About the Cost of Freedom

For many people, Memorial Day, which is also known as Decoration Day, is simply another day to spend time with friends and family. Of course, every veteran would agree that the reason for the sacrifice is so that people could spend time with friends and family. Everyone loves a good picnic or barbecue and being free to gather as we wish is important. The freedom to do what you want, when you want to do it, is an important right. Memorial Day is all about remembering, at least for a moment, the cost of that freedom.

I’m writing this post on Friday. Like many people, I won’t be in my office today. In fact, I’m making it a true day off—I’m not even bringing my computers up. About now, I’ve spent some time thinking about the guys I served with in the Navy and said a prayer for their well being. I’ve also thought about all those people who came before me and have served since my time—people who gave of themselves. However, I have to wonder just how many people have thought of those who died (or even the veterans who managed to live through it all).

In preparing for the post today, I wanted to find something interesting—something I haven’t discussed in years past. It was a bit surprising that Google returned all sorts of unexpected results. The first entry was from Wikipedia, which is quite nice, but hardly noteworthy. However, the next several entries were about the things that could (and should) surround Memorial Day, but didn’t discuss the main event at all. There were entries about the weather, finding the food you need for your picnic, the potential for wet conditions ruining the Memorial Day celebration, and an ad for Travelocity. At least I didn’t go ten straight entries without finding something worthwhile. The next entry was a CNN presentation of the difference between Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. I then went another 14 entries before I found something that was actually related to Memorial Day. So, out of the top 20 hits on Google, 18 of them talked about the weather, picnics, travel, television shows, and all sorts of things that really don’t have anything to do with Memorial Day.

Fortunately, you don’t have to follow the crowd. You can choose to celebrate the true meaning of Memorial Day, which is to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure you have the freedom to live as you wish to live. Take time this Memorial Day to provide a moment of silence at your picnic or other festivity. No one is asking you to be somber for the rest of the day, just to take a quick time out in remembrance. After all, all those fellows in Arlington (and other cemeteries worldwide) thought your freedom was worth far more than a moment of silence, they gave their lives to attain it.

 

Odd Fallout of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)

Laws generally help define correct behavior when there is a difference of opinion between groups of people. They do things like ensure public health and safety. After all, when everyone agrees that certain behavior is acceptable (or unacceptable), you rarely see a law about it. Most laws also free people from the whims of government by providing a rule upon which to base decisions of whether someone is law abiding or not (the requirement to prove guilt, rather than innocence).

The context of an act usually comes into play. Stealing Intellectual Property (IP) is one of those areas in which there is a difference of opinion and context most definitely comes into play. There is a group on one side that says all information wants be free and that there is no such thing as stealing IP. This group is represented by people who download music or other forms of media without paying for it and feel the act is perfectly acceptable. On the other side is a group the vigorously defends IP, even when there isn’t a good reason to do so. This group is represented by organizations such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Of course, artists and consumers alike are stuck in the middle between these two warring parties.

A law is considered fair and good when it represents the interests of as many parties as possible in an equitable manner. Over the years I’ve read about the truly odd fallout from the DMCA. For example, the RIAA suing a dead grandmother is an example of the sort of negative publicity that tends not to produce a desirable reaction when the goal is to get people to actually buy the music they want to hear. Of course, you’ve read about my viewpoint on IP a number of times. However, the fact of the matter is that publishers are slowly losing ground because the majority of people are ill-informed as to the need to buy IP and those who do know have decided that getting free IP for as long as they can is the only consideration. Most authors and artists (myself included) are starting to move toward means of earning a living that don’t involve fighting with customers over who should pay.

Unfortunately, the fight over IP is one of those things that just won’t go away because you want it to. I recently read an interesting InfoWorld article, Copyright act could make it illegal to repair your own car, that has me thinking of future stories in the news about Ford hauling dead grandmothers into court over repairs done without the consent of their local Ford dealer. The fact of the matter is that the DMCA is a bad law that represents only one side of the dispute—those who stand to make a huge profit from IP. Until the consumer is involved in the process and the voices of radical elements are heard, you can be sure that people will continue to ignore their rights and responsibilities when it comes to IP.

What do you see as the future of IP? The current situation isn’t sustainable. Authors and artists of all types need to earn a living just like everyone else. Someone has to pay for the IP or the people producing it will decide to do something else to meet their financial obligations (possibly creating lower quality and substantially less IP during their off hours). At the same time, consumers should be free to use the materials they purchased in any reasonable manner they see fit. If you buy one of my books, I guarantee that I’m not going to use the DMCA to haul you into court for marking it up or using it in a manner consistent with fair use laws. I’d like to get your feedback at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

A Future of Fast Connectivity

When I was growing up, our home had a party line (at least, when I was younger). Of course, most people have no idea of what a party line is because most people have never experienced one. A party line is a telephone connection that you share with several of your neighbors. That’s right, you don’t have your own personal telephone connection or even a dedicated connection to your home. When you receive a call, a unique ring tells you that the call is for you and not for one of your neighbors. I’m really not kidding—this isn’t April Fools or some type of other fiendish joke foisted by someone who is older on an unsuspecting public.

The new world order of cellphones where every individual not only has an individual phone, but a separate telephone number is a huge advance over the days of my early youth. Of course, some of us still have landlines because cell access is a tad spotty, but eventually the cell providers or some other concern will address the problem. The idea that you can connect through your cellphone to the Internet and create a wireless connection is amazing. It’s not a fast connection in many areas of the country today, but at least it works much of the time.

Some people haven’t really stopped to consider the huge changes that have taken place during this transition. At one time, getting away from it all really did mean being out of touch and people survived just fine. Today it’s hard to get disconnected. Most people are tethered together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is no private time and the thing we called privacy is a long forgotten dream. With the loss of privacy has also come a certain loss of freedom. Just how free are you when someone can track your movements and check up on you at any time.

Unfortunately, like it or not, the trend will just continue. I read an article entitled, Ultrafast Internet opens up new possibilities: experts, not too long ago that paints a picture of the future that some will find exciting. However, I have to wonder just how exciting it will actually be once it arrives. The mere act of walking around your home will possibly take on new meaning because virtual people could simply pop in at any time. Just think about it. You won’t be able to simply ignore the cell call you don’t want to receive anymore—the person will simply appear in your house unbidden. Of course, there won’t be anything illegal about the act because no one has bothered to create laws regarding it.

Lest you think that this is some future technology that you’ll never see, companies such as Google are making it happen as I write this post. Even though the connectivity isn’t yet what most would consider high speed, there are vendors who will sell you Internet connectivity literally everywhere—connectivity that brings this whole virtual reality one step closer. The fact of the matter is that it won’t be long and there will be no getting away from it all and there will be no privacy of any sort for anyone. We’ll be monitored, checked, validated, categorized, and controlled 24 hours a day unless laws are put in place now to keep this rampant technology in check.

The question, of course, is whether people really are ready for virtual holidays where everyone attends the family dinner from their own home (a technology called telepresence). Yes, you can see the other people, but will you truly be able to interact with them? What are your thoughts about the whole issue of connectivity so fast that our real world will be subsumed by a virtual world? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Does Your Hardware Spy On You?

Every once in a while I encounter an article that talks about government intrusion into private organizations through means that seem more like a James Bond movie plot than reality. The latest such story appeared in ComputerWorld, “To avoid NSA, Cisco delivers gear to strange addresses.” These articles lead me to wonder whether the authors have an overdeveloped persecution complex or government agencies are really spying on the public in such overtly secretive (and potentially illegal) ways. The fact that some companies apparently believe the threat enough to ship their equipment to odd addresses is frightening. Consider the ramifications of the actions—is it even possible to feel safe ordering hardware you haven’t built yourself (or are the individual components bugged too)?

Obviously, government organizations do require some means of tracking bad guys out there. Of course, the term bad guys is pretty loose and subject to great deal of interpretation. In addition, just how much tracking is too much tracking? Would enough tracking prevent another terrorist attack or the loss of income caused by crooked company executives? There are many questions that remain unanswered in my mind (and obviously in the minds of others) over the use of various tracking technologies.

The topic of government spying, it’s legitimate and illegitimate uses, and just who the bad guy is demands a lot more attention than anyone is giving it. So, how do you feel about government tracking of everything and anything it sets its mind to spy on? Do you feel there should be limits? What do you feel about shipping things to odd addresses to avoid notice and circumvent the system (partly because the system is broken)? I’d love to hear your point of view about the use of modified computer equipment as a tool for spying on the private sector at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Fooling the Eye

I’m intensely interested in all sorts of accessibility issues, including things that people don’t normally associate with accessibility, even though they are. For example, I was recently amused when I read Explained! Why People Can’t Agree on the Color of that Dress. Yes, the article is one of those sorts of optical illusion discussions that some people find fascinating, but many others don’t. However, it does point to something really interesting for everyone. How we perceive color depends on a lot of factors, not just the actual color. In this case, the factor is backlighting. It’s an interesting article because it points out that under the right conditions, we really can’t be sure that the color we’re seeing is the correct one.

The practical application of all this is that it’s important to understand that our perceptions of the world around us are often based on context. So, whether you’re trying to discover the color of a really wretched dress or that blotch on a piece of fruit, you need to consider the context of whatever you’re seeing. The ability to see color well could be trumped by a whole array of other factors, such as lighting or simply the time off day. Color perception can even be affect by state of mind or tiredness. In short, it isn’t absurd to think that your color vision will sometimes fail to produce the desired result.

The lesson on perception and the use of senses extends far beyond color vision. For example, people’s hearing is often fooled by environmental factors. The senses of taste and touch are equally susceptible to problems with environment or other factors that you might not consider worth thinking about. When something seems a bit too odd for serious consideration, perhaps your senses are simply being fooled. It’s an interesting and important element of the human condition to think about. Tell me about your favorite “Fool the Eye” experience at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.